Tallinn’s secret history of espionage
Just as a child’s chances in life depend in great part on where they are born, so a city’s history can be determined by its location. Tallinn’s crucial strategic position between Russia and the West meant that as the Cold War developed, her pretty streets were seething with spies and double agents from all sides, waiting to be sent either east or west. It was no coincidence that the matchbox-sized Minox camera, a favourite Bond-style spy gadget, was invented in this city.
In 1934, the novelist Graham Greene met a British munitions salesman in Tallinn, who later turned out to be working for British intelligence. Greene subsequently wrote a film script set in the city about a sewing machine salesman who becomes a secret agent. The film was never made, but Greene used the plot for his 1958 novel, Our Man in Havana, changing the location from here to Cuba.
After Estonia was finally annexed by the Soviets in 1944, espionage in the city shifted up a gear, from the film noir glamour of Greene’s 1930s to the relentless, systematic surveillance of the KGB. One of the Russians’ first priorities was to prevent the influx of Western ideas via radio and television signals from nearby Finland. Just as they would later use Hotel Viru as a front for surveillance activity, so they co-opted what is perhaps Tallinn’s most famous landmark into their armoury.
When St Olaf’s Church was built in the 12th century, it was the tallest building in the world. An informal pact by developers has ensured it is still the highest point in Tallinn, and the viewing platform, at the foot of its austere black spire, is proudly recommended by Estonians as the best vantage point in the city. The Soviets, with no time for such sentimental nonsense as civic pride, promptly took over the church and used its spire as their main radio and TV-jamming station. When the authorities turned the St Olaf’s jamming station on, sending out waves of fuzz on the same frequencies as the Finnish broadcasts, it was so powerful that it briefly blocked the reception in Helsinki itself.
At the church I meet local historian Dmitry Saley, who, despite being barely 30, still remembers life under the jam. ‘People built huge homemade receptors to try to catch the Finnish and Swedish signals,’ he explains, before hopping onto a wall to demonstrate how his older brother used to hang over the balcony of his flat with an aerial, searching for any trace of the ‘erotic films’ that Swedish TV was rumoured to show. ‘They knew that these films existed, but no-one had ever seen one,’ says Dmitry. ‘They found a few fuzzy images once: I’ll never forget the look on their faces!’
We are walking towards the Museum of Occupations, which lays out in exhaustive detail the extent to which everyday life in Tallinn was monitored by the Soviets. The route takes us past a grey brick building with blocked-up windows, sitting grimly upon an elegant street of antique shops and cafés. This was once the most feared place in the city – the KGB headquarters. A plaque on the wall reads: ‘Here began the path to death of many Estonians’.
At the museum, we are greeted by curator Heiki Ahonen. A tall, bespectacled man, his quiet demeanour and dry wit belie a life story that is straight from the pages of a political thriller. Heiki’s years in the underground resistance, writing illegal samizdat (dissident activity) newspapers, were rewarded by a stint in a labour camp and exile in West Germany. He has now dedicated his life to recording the means by which Tallinn residents were suppressed by Soviet rule. Much of the equipment on display was donated by former KGB officials. ‘They never want to meet me when they bring their stuff in, or explain what the equipment was for,’ says Heiki. ‘So we work it out ourselves. I think a lot of them are ashamed of what they did.’